How to Write Great Villains

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I am a huge admirer of writers who can create a villain I care about. I know that sounds like odd wording but it’s true.

I care about Cersei Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire and I care about Lanfear in The Wheel of Time.

I do not, however, care about Sauron from The Lord of the Rings (he is, however, explore more thoroughly throughout the rest of Tolkien’s Legendarium), or Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.

Many of my examples of great villains come from A Song of Ice and Fire and the reason for this is that George R.R. Martin is a master of putting us inside the villain’s head and almost agreeing sometimes with what they are thinking. We are of course horrified at the right moments, but there is a level of empathy there that makes me almost root for the villains at times!

I am going to use Cersei Lannister as my main example to show what I think makes a great villain. (I’m going off the books as she is a POV character).

Cersei is characterised first and foremost as a woman who was sold into marriage to a man who loved someone else. Her driving characteristics are based on the love she bares for her children and her twin brother, Jamie – but her love for her children is unparallelled. I have no doubt she would kill Jamie to protect her children.

Because of these defining characteristics, Cersei’s actions all stem from her desire to protect her family. So, when she makes (what seem to us to be) drastic decisions that kill a lot of people, innocents and her enemies alike, we as the reader almost agree with her. We want her to protect her family because that is what we would do in this situation.

Cersei is everything I want to see in a main antagonist. She is ruthless, intelligent, and courageous. There are similarities in these traits that we would want in a hero, and that’s the point. If there is a story of two people fighting, there is always a reason behind each mind as to why they are in the right, and I believe it is the writer’s job to make us think about which character we agree with more, and why.

Villains like Voldemort (in the books, not the films as I believe he was portrayed very differently in the films) or Sauron do not have these other angles to their characters. They are Evil, that is it. They are the Evil for our Good protagonist to defeat. This is done well in both cases, but that kind of storytelling has become overused and is boring because the reader wants to have some kind of interaction with the villain. Without this interaction of emotive or philosophical beliefs, the reader just ignores them.

What do you think makes a great villain and who are some of your favourites? Let me know in the comments.

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1 comments on “How to Write Great Villains”

  1. I think you’re totally right on with this. I love my villains to be sympathetic and make me question if I really want the good guys to win. I think the sixth Harry Potter book did a better job of showing Voldemort’s past and making him a little more sympathetic (at least a little more human), but you never really understand his motivation besides just wanting power over people who hurt him. One of my favorite villains in literature is Sebastian from The Mortal Instruments. He freaks me out because he shows a glimmer of humanity through an otherwise sociopathic shell. Great blogpost!

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